For VCU student Francisco Ramirez, aka Ivanna Vakavich, performing in drag helps him stay confident and express Pride in bold, fearless fashion.
“Drag makes me feel like a superhero.” In front of piles of makeup laid across a bathroom counter, Francisco Ramirez begins to tell me about his own journey.
“I could care less what anyone tells me. If my own family doesn’t support it, I don’t care,” he said. “I want to follow my dreams, and yes I’m a student, and yes I get stressed, but I love it so much.”
Ramirez is a third-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is majoring in Spanish by day, but by night, he’s a drag queen who goes by the name Ivanna Vakavich. Ramirez describes his drag persona as “stunning and punk at the same time. She proves anyone can be confident in any size.”
Ramirez is a larger than life personality. He can be seen walking around the VCU campus frequently speaking to people, a huge smile always across his face. Unlike his makeup, though, his reasons for starting to do drag aren’t a pretty story.
“I started doing drag because of a major depression,” he said. “A falling out with my mother had caused me to feel lost, afraid, and alone. A trip to a beauty supply store and buying a wig changed my life forever; I felt like a brand new person.”
He now performs in different competitions and shows around Richmond, and describes the Richmond drag scene as a “sisterhood.”
“Even though Richmond isn’t as big a city, such as New York City or Los Angeles, we’re a tight-knit unit. We aren’t afraid to help each other and give each other the critiques we need to be better,” he said. “Some people are really good at makeup, some people are good at dancing — it’s all how you work together that matters.”
He also appreciates his double life as a student and a drag queen. “I’m able to grow in more ways than one,” he said. “I have a bunch of different interests, and I’m able to do them and grow holistically. It’s important to get your education. If anything, it might help your drag career!”
According to the National LGBTQ Task Force, “20% of college students fear for their physical safety due to their gender identity or their perceived sexual orientation.” Ramirez understands, but his advice to these students is to “live in your truth.”
“Don’t hold back from who you are, and don’t let people talk you down,” he said. “Hang around people who are supportive and can give you real genuine advice. Help each other out.”
However, Ramirez also feels that VCU offers a more accepting community than students at other colleges might find. “I could go to class in full drag and be like, ‘Yep! I’m here!’ and nobody would say a thing,” he said. “You can’t do that everywhere.”
“For many students, college may be the first opportunity they have to meet other LGBTQ+ people or live authentically,” said Dae Newman, a VCU professor who is one of the co-chairs of Equality VCU. Newman agrees that VCU presents a positive community for LGBTQ students, and emphasizes how important that truly is.
“The presence of inclusive policies, resources, and strong campus communities can also be a consideration for people when selecting a school,” they said. “The success and popularity of events such as Lavender Graduation is a testament to how strong VCU’s LGBTQ+ community is.”
Newman is also very proud of the footsteps VCU is taking to becoming more inclusive going forward. “Equality VCU is particularly excited about the development of the Queer Research and Advocacy Center, known as the Q Collective,” they said. “We think that having a dedicated LGBTQ+ center on campus is a great step in the right direction.”
As the LGBTQ community gains in acceptance every day, LGBTQ culture also becomes more mainstream. Television shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, Queer Eye, and Pose put the LGBTQ community in the forefront of the nation’s television screens. Now more than ever, Pride festivals, parades, and events are more common across the globe; drag and voguing have become celebrated art forms. More people are coming in contact with the LGBTQ community in their day to day life. However, as Pride season becomes more commercialized, LGBTQ community history is increasingly pushed aside and forgotten.
Ramirez believes it is the community’s responsibility to keep this history alive — and he sees that as especially true of drag queens. “We are literally the representation of Pride,” he said. “We are what comes to people’s mind when they think of pride. Pride is being yourself. Pride is about being proud of who you are.”
Ramirez particularly enjoys when people outside the community comes to performances and Pride events. “People come up to me all the time and say ‘I didn’t know you did drag!’ It’s all about representation. That what changes the game and makes it better and safer for all.”
One of Ramirez’s classmates and coworkers is a testament to this. Josh Robinson, a Junior at VCU studying Mass Communications became friends with Ramirez through working together. “Francisco is an accepting person,” said Robinson. “I grew up in a very limited, closed-minded community. The LGBT+ community was frowned upon, and people were not very accepting.”
However, seeing Ramirez perform in drag opened him up to a whole new world. “Experiencing drag and watching my friend perform gave me a better insight into the culture,” he said. “Seeing Francisco perform only made our friendship stronger, and helped me learn more.”
For anyone trying to juggle their dreams and their day-to-day responsibilities, Ramirez stands an example and inspiration. Ivanna Vakavich can be found performing in different bars in the Richmond area; keep up with her on Facebook.
Photos by Malik Welton